Student aims to answer questions about causes and outcomes of food insecurity

Marjorie S. Miller
March 25, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — From her experiences as an undergraduate majoring in nutritional sciences, Dixin Xie developed many questions about the global trend of food insecurity, such as what the mental health outcomes are of someone who is food insecure, and if there is an inverse relationship between the two.

The Penn State senior never imagined she would get to conduct her own research project to answer these very questions.

“Previous research suggests that food insecurity leads to poor mental health outcomes, but the inverse relationship was less tested,” Xie said. “My project examines whether exposing someone to a certain degree of psychosocial factors makes them more likely to become food insecure — in that, maybe mental illness can be a cause of food insecurity.”

Xie became interested in food insecurity after the topic was brought up in her nutritional sciences classes, and after doing nutrition education for underprivileged families as part of her Community Nutrition and Food Security coursework. Through these experiences she learned more about how food issues can impact families, and that the problem is everywhere.

She is conducting a research project which seeks answer whether some mental health issues could be caused by not having enough to eat. She is working under the guidance of faculty mentor Muzi Na, assistant professor of nutritional sciences.

Dixin Xie - Research Opportunities

Nutritional Sciences student Dixin Xie is conducting a research project which seeks answer whether some mental health issues could be caused by not having enough to eat. She is working under the guidance of faculty mentor Muzi Na, assistant professor of nutritional sciences. She said her ability to both initiate and carry through the research project will make her competitive in her field, something she is excited to enter once she graduates from Penn State.

Rob Peeler

Though Xie’s interest in food insecurity is fairly new, her passion for nutrition is a longstanding one, stemming from her love of food and interest in how food affects the body, both physically and mentally.

“Food insecurity is a major issue,” Xie said. “Many researchers examine the mental health outcomes of people who are food insecure. But what if stress or negative emotion could be caused by not having enough to eat?”

These questions inspired the research project, which Na invited Xie to start as part of her research team.

“Dr. Na has been patient with me, which I really appreciate since this is my first time doing research on my own,” Xie said. “She encouraged me a lot. She helped me learn how to work with a team and taught me how to use data analysis software. Dr. Na helped me prove to myself that what I am passionate about, I am capable of doing.”

“Receiving research support helped me to create a new path and realize that it is possible for me to work on a question that I have been curious about and have a passion for. This research support encouraged me to pursue my dream in the nutritional sciences field.”

— Dixin Xie, nutritional sciences undergraduate at Penn State

Xie said though the work with the research project is very different from any of her other school work, the topic is very much related to the material she’s learning in class.

“A lot of my courses address food insecurity,” Xie said. “What I have learned in class has helped me understand the material I am reading about for my research project.”

Being involved from the start of the project made her knowledgeable about how research studies are designed.

She said her ability to both initiate and carry through the research project will make her competitive in her field, something she is excited to enter once she graduates from Penn State.

“This experience means a lot to me. I hope that I can present my findings at national conferences, and I hope that my effort in this topic is well-received,” Xie said.

Dixin Xie - Advice for undergraduate students

Xie said she wants to encourage other undergraduates to pursue research as well, and hopes her experience inspires others. She said Penn State’s reputation as a top research institution, and the willingness of faculty members to mentor students, make it a great place to do research as an undergraduate.

Rob Peeler

Xie’s project is supported by the Smith Endowment in the College of Health and Human Development. She said the support makes it financially possible for her to take online classes to study statistical analysis on her own, which is vital to her research project.

“Receiving research support helped me to create a new path and realize that it is possible for me to work on a question that I have been curious about and have a passion for,” Xie said. “This research support encouraged me to pursue my dream in the nutritional sciences field.”

Xie said she wants to encourage other undergraduates to pursue research as well, and hopes her experience inspires others.

Dixin Xie - Support from Penn State

Xie’s project is supported by the Smith Endowment in the College of Health and Human Development. She said the support makes it financially possible for her to take online classes to study statistical analysis on her own, which is vital to her research project. Xie also said receiving research support helped her realize the possibility of working on an issue she is passionate about.  

Rob Peeler

“Research is not some far-fetched idea for undergraduate students,” Xie said. “You can participate in a project or start your own. That first step of getting involved is the hardest, but just know you are not alone.”

She said Penn State’s reputation as a top research institution, and the willingness of faculty members to mentor students, make it a great place to do research as an undergraduate.

“I believe for many undergraduate students, there may be a gap between the knowledge we learned in school and how to apply it in actual work," said Xie. "I believe this project filled this gap in perfectly.”

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Last Updated April 05, 2019